American Eurocopter’s new chief surveys market landscape

 - January 15, 2008, 5:29 AM

The first question to Marc Paganini, freshly appointed CEO of American Eurocopter (AEC), is the obvious one. And he answers with a grin: “No, I’m no relation to that other Paganini. I wish I were…” He was referring to 18th-century virtuoso violinist and composer Nicolo Paganini, famed throughout Europe in his day as a performer so hypnotically frenetic that ladies in his audiences swooned. He was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil for his musical powers.

Nothing quite so dramatic takes place in the commercial helicopter world, although in recent years many rotorcraft marketing execs have probably considered selling their souls to boost soggy sales. Depending on how the numbers were broken down in years past, Eurocopter has generally taken the number-one slot in total sales value, with the high-volume, low-dollar-value-per-unit Robinson helicopters outscoring in terms of units sold. Placed alongside the overall flaccid sales its rivals have racked up in recent years, AEC and its parent, the Franco-German consortium Eurocopter, seem poised to take the number-one position both in terms of unit sales and dollar value this year. Numbers traditionally released at the upcoming Heli-Expo show should tell the tale.

Paganini comes to his new job from his most recent post as senior vice president of investor relations for EADS, the European Aerospace Defense and Space Co. In that capacity he was instrumental in spearheading the initial public offering in missile-maker Aerospatiale Matra in 1999 and EADS itself in 2000.

“It’s great to be heading up Eurocopter’s most important geographic market segment at a time when there’s so much at stake,” Paganini recently told AIN. “We’re experiencing strong market share growth in some markets that have always been kind to us, and modest growth in those where we haven’t been that strong.

“For example, the aeromedical market: AEC has always been strong there, the leader really, thanks to the BO 105 and later the BK 117. The BK was the ship that was really defined by the needs of the EMS market, from the high tail-rotor clearance to the aft clamshell door, and that market loved it. Quite a few BK 117s are still in service, and a lot of the traditional operators of that helicopter are replacing them with our follow-on, the EC 135, which adds a fenestron tail rotor to the traditional aft door configuration. On top of that design, we’ve just come out with the EC 145, a longer, heavier upgrade to the BK 117. Our first demonstrator got to the U.S. only recently and will be making a nationwide tour beginning in the weeks right after Heli-Expo ’03 [set to take place this month between the 9th and 11th].

“For a long time the corporate market has virtually disappeared,” Paganini continued. “That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read the business press anytime during the past three years. I’m convinced it will come back, and when it does we have our EC 155 there to meet it. It’s the quietest helicopter in its weight class, and that’s counting for more and more in the crowded urban environments where the corporates operate.”

Addressing the needs of the corporate operators and other specialty clients is why AEC is committed to creating a new manufacturing and completions center in Columbus, Miss. This plant will be set on 40 acres with an initial 100,000 sq ft enclosed. “From there we’ll manufacture components for the AS 350, EC 130 and AS 355 and also provide completions. We’ll also do final assembly of the AS 350. With a workforce of about 100 employees, it’s going to make a big change for AEC in terms of autonomy,” Paganini said. “The Columbus area, inside the so-called Golden Triangle, has had quite a few military contractors in it over the years, and because of this the workforce in the region is highly skilled.”

Asked if Eurocopter would be attempting to break into the heretofore impenetrable U.S. military market, Paganini smiled. “That’s an attractive market for us, and it’s still one of the world’s largest.”

Paganini points with pride to one of Eurocopter’s more recent better ideas, the EC 130. Unveiled as a well-guarded surprise at Heli-Expo 2001, the widebody utility helo was the answer to an air-tour operator’s dream. In fact, the dreams of just those sorts of user had been deftly combined in four-abreast, high-visibility seating. Blue Hawaii, one of the 50th state’s leading air-tour operators, was the launch customer for this model, speaking up for a total of 10 EC 130s, six of which have already been delivered. A further three are on their way to New York air-tour-guide Liberty Helicopter.

But that’s not all. The EC 130 has slipped out of its niche to attract the interest of law enforcement. Paganini explained: “The police have come to appreciate the extra room in the EC 130’s cabin, allowing them to bring along additional personnel and equipment. But what they’ve really come to like is the quieter noise footprint we built into the EC 130. Most recently, the Long Beach, California police signed for a pair of EC 130s, and we’re confident there will be many more sales.”